Conserving wildlife in Namibia

Greek philosopher Aristotle, who was born in 384 BC, described in his Treatise on Government a characteristic of human nature that has not changed in more than 2,000 years, applies today and is not likely to change in the future. He said, “… what is common to many is taken least care of; for all men regard more what is their own than what others share with them in … every one is more negligent of what another is to see to, as well as himself, than of his own private business.”

The Namibian government has applied some of that ancient wisdom to its Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) programme aimed at conserving wildlife. The programme enables communities to benefit from wildlife conservation but requires management of the resource to be placed in the hands of community-appointed management teams responsible for preventing poaching.

Animals such as rhino and desert elephant that had disappeared from certain areas are slowly returning or are being re-introduced and numbers of other wildlife are steadily increasing. At the same time more people are finding employment and standards of living are improving, breaking a vicious cycle of poverty that has been a source of concern to Namibians.

So what has changed? In the 1990s the Namibian government decided to introduce CBNRM in an effort to conserve and use wildlife and other renewable living resources on communal land. The goal was to promote tourism and rural economic development in communal areas to improve standards of living and alleviate the country’s chronic unemployment problem. Over the past ten years, Namibia’s CBNRM project has expanded rapidly. When the Enterprise Africa! team visited the country in 2006 there were 44 registered conservancies and another 30 were being planned.

In 1996, the Namibian government introduced legislation to give local people rights to manage wildlife and benefit from tourism. Similar programmes in Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe had proved successful and gave the Namibian government the necessary confidence to follow the same course. Prior to 1996 only large-scale farmers, most of whom were white, had the right to benefit from the wildlife on their farms. Black Namibians living on state-owned communal land were not entitled to do so – the wild animals on community land belonged to the government. True to Aristotle’s observation, the people living on communal land had little reason to protect this resource that was of no benefit to them.

The introduction of CBNRM has changed the attitudes of the communities dramatically. They now have a proprietary interest in the wild animals and see them as key to improving their lives. Wildlife numbers were steadily decreasing but the situation has now changed for the better and the populations of all species are increasing.

Wildlife attracts tourists and as the communities own the rights to this natural resource they have an economic incentive to make sure that the numbers of animals are not depleted as they were in the past. Indeed, tourists have brought money and expanded trading opportunities to the rural areas. CBNRM has lead to considerable benefits for local people, ranging from job creation to the introduction of new skills, sharing in the venison harvest, and expanded community programmes.

The most profitable aspect of the conservancies is the establishment of joint venture lodges to accommodate tourists. The lodges provide hundreds of full- and part-time jobs in areas where previously few employment options existed and subsistence farming and wildlife poaching were the main activities. Joint venture agreements require lodge operators to employ and train local people.

Conservancies benefit from annual fees paid by lodge operators for the right to operate the lodges. The fees are by no means insignificant and the members of the conservancy decide where and how the money will be spent. Operators erect the lodges at their own cost but after expiry of the leases, which generally run for a period of at least 20 years, the ownership of the lodges passes to the conservancies. At this juncture conservancy members have the option to take control of the lodge and operate it themselves. Alternatively, they can extend the lease of the existing operator or find a new operator to take over the management.

Before the conservancies were established, opportunities for the people living in the area to diversify livelihoods were very limited. Finding work usually meant travelling vast distances at great expense to urban centres where more job opportunities are available.

The Namibian government’s policy of devolving wildlife management and use rights to local communities has allowed the people to benefit directly from environmental protection. If the appropriate incentives are created within an institutional environment that devolves rights to manage natural resources, it will encourage entrepreneurial activities and the people will maintain and improve the natural environment.

Author: Jasson Urbach is an economist with the Free Market Foundation. He visited the Kunene region of Namibia in 2006 to study the CBNRM programme with Karol Boudreaux and Eustace Davie as part of the Enterprise Africa! project investigating enterprise-based solutions to poverty in Africa. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 03 July 2007 - Policy Bulletin/ 23 June 2009

Full Report: The full report Community-Based Natural Resource Management and Poverty Alleviation in Namibia: A Case Study by Karol Boudreaux, published by the Mercatus Centre, is available at http://www.enterprise-

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